I happen to be an atheist. I also happen to have spent the last decade or so studying religion. And until very recently, I felt that being an atheist provided me with some degree of helpful neutrality toward my object of study. Since I was comfortably removed from arguments about the truth or value of religion, I could focus instead on the facts of religion. Unlike religious individuals, I could easily avoid the inevitable biases that firm religious beliefs entail.
And then I found religion on a long walk from Montréal to Québec city.
My decision to walk from Montréal to Québec city came suddenly. Sitting at my desk preparing for my qualifying exam, I came across an article on le chemin des sanctuaires: a contemporary pilgrimage described as a “compostelle Québecois.” I asked my girlfriend Virginia whether she wanted to walk with me to Québec city and was delighted and somewhat surprised when she said yes. As the date of our pilgrimage drew closer we began to practice walking long distances and bought ourselves backpacks, rain gear, and sturdy shoes. Finally, on June 19, 2013 we left our Montréal apartment and took the bus to St. Joseph’s Oratory, the starting point of our 375-kilometer walk to the Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica near Québec city.
Because my Ph.D. research deals with religion in Québec, I was particularly interested in visiting the many religious landmarks that lie between Montréal and Québec City. It so happens that St. Joseph’s Oratory is perched at the top of a long staircase made of 283 steps and although this fact, coupled with the June heat and my rather heavy backpack, made me feel somewhat less inclined to re-visit this particular landmark, I persevered. Once inside, we were directed to a small office where a priest stamped our pilgrim’s passport and offered to bless our journey. Although I was curious to see what the blessing would involve, I politely declined the priest’s offer – though I did pay fifty cents to fill a small bottle with holy water, just for fun.
The long walk was steeped in religion. After leaving St. Joseph’s Oratory, we climbed up to the observation deck near the giant cross on the top of Mount Royal. We walked along St. Catherine boulevard past streets with names like St. Marc, St. Matthew, and St. Laurent. We stopped at the Mary Queen of the World Cathedral and again at the Notre Dame Basilica before taking the metro off the island of Montréal to Longueil.
At our first stop in Longueil we met Luc, another pilgrim who would be joining us on our walk. Although were all tired after walking fifteen kilometers, we inevitably began to talk about our motives for undertaking this strange activity. I was quick to insist that the walk had no religious signification for me. I explained that I was an atheist who studied religion and that I wanted to explore parts of Québec I had never seen. Virginia added that we were both interested in the physical challenge as well. Luc had other motives. He was in the process of overcoming several addictions and felt the walk would be spiritually beneficial. But was Luc himself religious? I would have to wait and find out.
My encounters with religion continued the following day when we arrived in the small town of Varennes, which is the home of the very first Canadian-born saint Marguerite d’Youville (1701-1771). That night we slept in the sanctuary, a small building located next to the much larger Basilica of Saint Anne of Varennes in which St. Marguerite’s remains are entombed. I had never spent the night a few hundred meters away from the remains of a saint and worried momentarily whether sleeping in a sanctuary would feel strange.
It didn’t. In fact, although I encountered religion on a daily basis, I tried to maintain what I felt to be an appropriate scholarly distance. I never found out whether Luc was religious: he injured his knee on the way to Varennes and decided not to continue the walk. But if his presence had hinted at the potential spiritual or religious significance of the pilgrimage, the walk developed a secular, almost academic feel when it was just Virginia and I. Yes we were on a pilgrimage. Yes we were sleeping next to the remains of saints. But we weren’t participating in any religious activities. I had refused the priest’s blessing and consistently refused to pay four dollars (four dollars!) to light candles in the various churches we passed. I was not engaging in prayer or contemplation or striving for spiritual growth. I was just walking (stumbling, sweating, cursing) and thinking (about my research, my dismal job prospects, my sore legs). If religion was all around me, I felt immune, distant, removed.
Three days and sixty-four kilometers later Virginia and I arrived in Saint-Aimé in time for the Saint-Jean-Baptiste parade.
Although celebrations on the feast day of Saint John the Baptist have a long history in Québec, it wasn’t until 1977 that Réné Levesque suggested the day become Québec’s national holiday. As we soon found out, the parade in Saint-Aimé is one of the oldest in province. It was a strange experience, walking down the middle of an empty main street, its sidewalks crowded with spectators awaiting the start of the parade. Moments after we found a shady spot from which to watch the parade, it began. We watched tractors, two marching bands, a strange Jurassic Park float, and even a float depicting little Saint John himself slowly move along the street. After, we bought ourselves beer and poutine and then more beer and spent the evening waving tiny Québec flags and chatting with some of the town’s five hundred inhabitants.
The next day we arrived, still somewhat hung over, at a Franciscan solitude near the town of Saint-François-du-Lac. The solitude was lovely, even if it did feel a bit like a summer camp. Virginia and I explored the grounds, wandered in a strange symmetrical wood littered with religious icons, and chatted with friendly Franciscans at supper.
Again I found myself carefully explaining that my motives for undertaking the walk were secular. I wanted to see Québec and I wanted to visit religious buildings but I did not want to do anything religious. I was an atheist, after all. Before leaving I discovered the secret behind the strange symmetrical wood: The trees were destined to become hydro poles and the Franciscans had planted them decades earlier as a source of future income.
Two days and twenty-six kilometers later Virginia and I arrived in Nicolet, a small town near Trois-Rivières that is home to Québec’s police academy. As we soon discovered, Nicolet is also home to a museum of world religions. I had never been to a religion museum and spoke with the director briefly after our visit. She told us that the museum is the only world religion museum in North America and one of only a handful in the world. We visited an exhibition on the veil in Catholicism and Islam, skirted the pricey gift shop, then peered through thick glass at objects related to birth and death rituals in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. It felt a little strange to wander through a religion museum. Religion, I thought, is something that can be easily experienced in the world. And while I appreciated the opportunities the museum provided for rural Québec high school students who might never otherwise see the religious implements used in various birth rituals, I also felt a sense of smug superiority: I preferred to observe religion in the field.
As the long walk continued I thought less about religion and more about my aching limbs. The monotony of walking began to frustrate me but so did the monotony of small towns and their churches. Virginia and I stopped going out of our way to visit religious landmarks. If we happened to walk past something, we might have a quick look, but there was no way were about to walk an extra kilometer to stare at yet another church, seminary, or cathedral. Whereas I had once been excited and a bit apprehensive about sleeping in religious buildings, by the time we finally reached Québec city I was bored with the idea. I had slept in two sanctuaries, a solitude, a sacristy, and finally a convent. Whereas I had once scrutinized and photographed each religious building or object I came across, by the time we reached Québec city I was more interested in scrutinizing menus or the bus schedule for our return trip. I had walked through what seemed like an endless array of churches and walked past what seemed like an interminable string of religious statues, place-names, road markers, and crosses. I had wanted to observe the religious character of rural Québec and I had certainly done so. And now I was sick of it. On the bus back to Montreal I decided that the trip would make for interesting conversation at parties at the very least.
The trip did make for good stories in the end. A few weeks later I was chatting with someone who said she was interested in religious pilgrimages. What a coincidence! I had just returned from a pilgrimage! She asked me to tell her all about it and I began to talk about the landmarks and churches when she stopped me. What about the pilgrimage itself? I explained that I couldn’t speak about the religious dimensions of the pilgrimage. Why not? Because I hadn’t noticed any religious dimensions – I was an atheist. I had seen plenty of religious buildings and objects but I hadn’t experienced anything particularly religious in the pilgrimage itself. It was only afterward that I began to ask myself why this was the case.
In the days that followed, my smug conviction that my atheism provided me with some kind of academic neutrality began to dissolve. I had spent sixteen days as a participant in what was, by most accounts, a religious activity and yet I had nothing at all to say about it. It was absurd. I experienced a moment of intense doubt… and then, in a flash of insight, I found religion.
Religion, I realized, is not in pilgrimages or churches. Religion isn’t anywhere at all. Religion is a tangled string of signification that exists in the kind of naming I had been engaged in during the long walk from Montréal to Québec city. The entire time I had been deeming some things religion and other things not religion without even thinking. Yet it had never occurred to me that the whole experience, the long walk itself, should be or even could be deemed religious. The worst part was that there was no good reason not to call it religion. The pilgrimage was secular because my atheistic commitments prohibited me from actively participating in religious activities. The pilgrimage was secular because I decided that it had to be secular. It was secular because that is what made me comfortable. So much for my alleged neutrality. And so much for my preference to observe religion ‘in the field.’ How could I trust myself to analyze and comment on religion if I let my own personal beliefs determine what counted as religion in the first place?
I had found religion but religion was not ‘out there’ to be discovered, described, explored, or categorized. I found that religion existed instead in my self-interested acts of classification. Religion existed, not in anything at which I could point, but at the tip of my pointing finger. An oft-cited passage came to mind:
“While there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious – there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy.” – Jonathan Z. Smith (1982), Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown.
What I hadn’t considered when I first read this is that if what counts as religion depends upon self-interested acts of classification then the same goes for whatever counts as ‘not-religion.’ My apparently secular pilgrimage was not secular at all – not because of any inherent religious dimensions, but because nothing is inherently religious or secular. Or rather my secular pilgrimage was completely secular, but only because I deemed it so.
Surprisingly, the upshot of this realization was not despair. I worried momentarily that I would never be able to justify my academic interests. Then I realized that finding religion in acts of classification demands precisely that I do justify my interests. Deeming some things religion and other things not-religion is inevitable and necessary. But for those of us who want to write and think and talk about either, explaining how and why we determine what counts as religion (or not religion) is necessary too. Not because we need to show how what we call religion ‘really is’ religion, but because we need to show why our imaginative acts of comparison and generalization are useful, or interesting, or both.
- Boutin, Suzanne. “Le Chemin des sanctuaires : un phénomène entre tradition et modernité.” Etudes D’histoire Religieuse 74 (2008): 29. Print.
- Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining religion: from Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Print.
Contributor Biography: Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Ian Alexander Cuthbertson completed an honours B.A. with great distinction in religious studies at Concordia University in Montréal before completing a Master’s degree in religion and modernity at Queen’s University, Kingston. Ian is currently in the fourth year of a cultural studies Ph.D. at Queen’s where he also teaches a first-year religious studies course. Ian’s research interests include secularization and secularism, disenchantment, and material religion.